“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.” ~ Leo Tolstoy.
In these complex times, there’s too much certainty and not enough questioning. Well, not really certainty. It’s conviction and most people believe their convictions to be certain. That is, they are convinced they are right. You know the type; they say “they tell it like it is” as though their view is the accurate one. When we believe our convictions are certain, we don’t need other people’s opinions.
I’ve been writing for public consumption for years. I’ve received lots of feedback. The most certain and often strident feedback I get comes from religious people who are certain of their beliefs. I think the reason they respond this way is to assure themselves that there is certainty; even if they have to define it themselves. We all need to have some degree of assurance about what the future holds.
Here’s the rub: while it may provide assurance, personal certitude is not necessarily certainty. In other words, what we believe in order to bring order to our life is certitude. It is not certainty. Certainty is how things are. Certitude is how we’re convinced they are. Think of it this way: Certitude is subjective. Certainty is intersubjective.
When we confuse our personal certitude with certainty, we think we have no other option but to disagree with others who have different points of view. I’m not saying that disagreement is wrong. If used effectively, it can add to our understanding and create change for the better. But if not, we solidify our positions and nothing useful can happen.
A case in point, President Obama is in Israel and according to the headline on Jay Newton-Small’s piece at Time Swampland, he’s “running to stay put.” “President Barack Obama heads to Israel late Tuesday for the first foreign trip of his second term, a visit more about maintaining the status quo in a region filled with upheaval than about historic treaties or groundbreaking peace deals. When U.S. presidents have visited Jerusalem in years past, it was for big reasons, usually involving the ends of various conflicts or to make a push for Middle East peace. Obama’s ambitions are a lot smaller. The President’s hopes for this trip are about getting leaders not to do things, rather than prompting action.”
I can’t think of place where subjective certitude disguised as objective certainty is more apparent and can do more damage if leaders where to act on their convictions. And I can’t think of a place where religion is a more stubborn obstacle. Their disputes go back to, “to whom God gave the land.”
Newton-Small goes on to write, “In Jerusalem, he needs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to bomb Iran before diplomatic talks have run their course. He also wants Netanyahu to stop, or at least slow, the building of new settlements in Palestinian areas so as to give the peace process a chance. And Obama would like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to report Israel to the Internal Criminal Courts for human rights violations. “This trip is about managing Middle East problems. It’s not about solving them,” says Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.”
Living with uncertainty is one of humankind’s most difficult challenges and the Mideast is one of the most uncertain places on the planet. So this would seem like a pretty good reason to realize that everyone involved there feels certain and learn to listen to each other’s points of view. Their felt-certainty and the inability to allow the validity of the other’s point of view has kept this part of the world in conflict since their history began. And I don’t hesitate to point out that the previously mentioned religious certainty is a pivotal element of the problem.
So I believe any workable solutions to global problems in the Mideast, or anywhere else on the planet, must begin with a recognition of the difference between personal certitude, religion and all, and objective certainty. Only then can productive dialogue begin.
But as I wrote earlier, my most certain and strident feedback comes from religious people. And being that religion is so important, particularly in the Mideast, I don’t hold out much hope. That said, I’ll offer an appropriate religious invocation from my altar boy days at the Latin Mass, Orate Fratres.